The teacher Bodhipaksa has a fascinating postconsidering the issues surrounding vegan/vegetarian diets, Buddhist,and identity. Responding to another article, he questions that writer's views that choosing to be vegan, for example, is a sentimental choice that can easily reinforce attachments to an identity.
While I agree with Dayamati’s point that our dietary preferences can become unhealthily clung to as an identity, I don’t think he sufficiently takes into account that it’s possible for us to live on a vegan or vegetarian diet without it distorting our identity. He does say, “Needless to say, there is no invariable causal relationship between deciding to be a vegan and becoming incapable of thinking carefully and impartially.” That’s welcome news.
I’m more bothered, however, by the following:
As long as one makes such decisions whimsically and realizes that the decision is a manifestation of sentimentality, everything is fine. It is only when one begins to think that there is something rational and righteous about the decision that one begins to get into spiritual (and philosophical) trouble.
I’m not sure quite what he means by making a decision to eat a vegan diet “whimsically.” If he simply means “with a lack of attachment” then that’s fine by me. If he means that we should only decide to eat a vegan diet on the basis of a passing irrational impulse, then I disagree. I think it’s possible to seriously consider the effects of our diet, and the sufferings that farm animals experience, and decide not to eat animal products. It’s only when I disengage my thought processes and refuse to consider these things that I can eat animal products. It’s when I surrender to the passing irrational impulses of hunger and craving that I find myself eating dairy products or eggs.
The suggestion that we should realize that “the decision is a manifestation of sentimentality,” leaves me puzzled. The word sentimentality implies that we have a disproportionate emotional response to a situation. Actually, our situation as a species is grave. We’re seriously messing up our world, and the problem is caring enough — our brains just aren’t well designed, it appears, when it comes to thinking about long-term consequences and the suffering or large numbers of beings.
I have had a vegetarian diet for about 15 years now. I have never felt compelled to become vegan, and I do have to say that I've met more self-righteous vegans than self-righteous vegetarians, but certainly that could just be my experience. In addition, although some would argue differently, I don't think being Buddhist means you must eliminate all meat from your diet. It seems more complicated than that.
I remember reading a chapter in one of herbalist Christopher Hobbs' books about how, after 20 years of not eating meat, he started experimenting with the use of fish oil supplements. He had been experiencing a lot of joint pain, so much so that he was concerned about his long term health. And he discovered that consuming fish oil for short periods of time - a few months each year - his quality of life dramatically increased.
That's just one example. There are plenty of others to consider out there. What do you all think about these issues? For example, what do you make of being vegan? Or are you already one, and can offer your perspective here?